A playwright calls

At 84, Arthur Miller shows no sign of slowing down. And when he dropped by to talk to the audience of his latest play, Heather Neill was there
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The Independent Culture

On Monday evening Arthur Miller strolled unannounced into the bar of the Almeida Theatre, London, a place where the clientele is pretty blasé about celebrities. But Arthur Miller is no ordinary celebrity and a definite frisson swept the room. Programmes were discreetly profferred to be autographed and someone stole a snap. Later, when he and Michael Blakemore, the director of his new play, Mr Peters' Connections, appeared in the theatre to chat informally about the work, the audience erupted like teenagers at a Robbie Williams concert. Miller, voted the most significant playwright of last century by a National Theatre poll last year, has become a sort of theatrical patron saint in Britain. He, in turn, has long acknowledged his affection for British theatre. Although recently reinstated among the greats at home (capped by two Tony nominations this summer), for years he looked to London to stage both new work and major revivals.

On Monday evening Arthur Miller strolled unannounced into the bar of the Almeida Theatre, London, a place where the clientele is pretty blasé about celebrities. But Arthur Miller is no ordinary celebrity and a definite frisson swept the room. Programmes were discreetly profferred to be autographed and someone stole a snap. Later, when he and Michael Blakemore, the director of his new play, Mr Peters' Connections, appeared in the theatre to chat informally about the work, the audience erupted like teenagers at a Robbie Williams concert. Miller, voted the most significant playwright of last century by a National Theatre poll last year, has become a sort of theatrical patron saint in Britain. He, in turn, has long acknowledged his affection for British theatre. Although recently reinstated among the greats at home (capped by two Tony nominations this summer), for years he looked to London to stage both new work and major revivals.

The late Bob Peck described Miller affectionately as looking like a tired eagle. His face still has that grandeur, still creases with mischievous humour and, three months short of his 85th birthday, he is still a big man. And he is as combative as ever, speaking out boldly about the state of the world, about politics and the arts.

Miller speaks jauntily, but what he has to say is sombre. Mr Peters' Connections is, he says, about the loss of community. "In the past you felt you belonged somewhere. Even in the war you knew where you were supposed to be. Mr Peters is looking for continuity, for what makes us adhere." He sees modern communication technology as progressively "cutting off confrontation with other people", but he believes the arts still represent a chance for socialisation: "You go to the theatre, you hear others laugh and you know it's funny. It's hard to laugh at television, sitting by yourself."

Miller has lived the quintessential American life while continuing to question the American dream. The son of an almost illiterate Polish immigrant father who became a business success, he suffered poverty in the Depression, worked his way through college, defied McCarthyism and has survived Hollywood and marriage to its most glittering star, Marilyn Monroe.

On Monday I found myself sitting next to his wife of 38 years, the celebrated photographer Inge Morath. We had met briefly once before when I'd interviewed Miller. I mentioned that I'd once seen him rehearse some actors at the Young Vic when, in no time, he was on set, acting with wit and relish. "Oh, yes, he loves that," she said. He is still a performer. Given an audience - in public or private - his laconic wit quickly draws laughter. His timing is spot-on. Not surprisingly, he says he "hears" every bit of dialogue before writing it down.

Sitting on the dream-like nightclub set, where old Mr Peters encounters those close to him, living and dead, Miller says: "It's tough to be near death and have to think back on an oblong blur, that there's no definition to your life." He refutes suggestions that this play may be more autobiographical than others. He has always said how he could never write for characters he couldn't inhabit.Now he adds, with disarming simplicity: "Every writer writes about his life. What other subject is there?"

He continues to experiment with form: "This play doesn't proceed in a narrative manner, but one emotion breeds another." And then, typically, he brings everything down to earth, to the left-leaning politics for which he is famous: "I think we are driven more by feeling than objective reality anyway - how else could you elect Reagan? He left the country with the biggest debt in its history, yet they still talk about him as a conservative economist. But he was friendly, not aggressive. They loved him."

Miller is a craftsman - literally in that he makes professional-standard furniture at the Connecticut clapboard home where he has lived for more than 50 years- but also in his writing. On present form, he is unlikely to stop shaping his version of the American experience until he is well beyond Mr Peters' sleepy stage.

Inge Morath taps the brown envelope on her lap: "Here it is. The next one". Miller has just this evening invited Blakemore to direct Resurrection Blues on the strength of his satisfaction with the present production. "I arrived at rehearsals expecting to complain every day for a week," he says. "But I looked in once and I've been wandering around London since." Set in South America, the new piece includes the threat of a public crucifixion; no one could accuse him of going soft in old age.

He sums up what it is that keeps him working in theatre: "I do all the acting, then the director does it all, then the actors, then the audience and there's something magical about that that can't be rationalised."

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